30 November 2013

What day it is

I open up my eyes, thick with sleep, to the half-moon in my window. Abruptly it seemed, it took the place of a crescent, thinner than a clipped thumb nail, overnight. I spend the next minute struggling to remember where I am, what day it is, and if I have to hurry to be somewhere. It's like waiting for a Polaroid picture to develop, unimprovable blankness at first, followed by thin traces of objects captured -- a stack of books on the floor, blue unblinking stare of the TV screen on Anthony's face, he is deep asleep on the couch, his head nestled in his folded arms, his lips parted, unaware. It's quiet, except the clacking of the clock in the other room. I reach for my phone. 6.43 am. Then it hits me: I have overslept for work by an hour. 

I cut up an apple, its skin crisp and alert, and scoop a spoon of peanut butter out of the glass jar. No time left for anything else. A carton box of oatmeal and a measuring cup I set next to the stove the night before to make myself porridge for breakfast remain untouched, later they will be a reminder of the morning's haste. I stifle my cough not to wake Anthony. The skin under my nose feels raw, scalded by a cold. 

The air grips the skin on my face the moment I start off on my bike, the temperature out looks to be close to zero. It will take another hour before the day gets lighted, but the darkness is starting to kneel as the strip of dawn on the horizon unweaves itself forward. 

Later that day I'm in a chiropractor's office, on the table that looks like a gym apparatus for back extension, only this one is flat.

"Breathe out," he says. My arms crossed, I feel his weight on my chest.

"You have to breathe out," he pushes down. I hear cracks in my spine, but they seem so muffled that it feels we both eavesdrop on what occurs behind the closed doors. I breathe out again, my face, sticky from the day's work, is close to his muscled neck. I forgot to put on deodorant, and I'm convinced I smell of leeks. Another twist and push, and then another one in the opposite direction. I stand up and walk around -- my back still hurts. 

"Is it a burning pain?"

"Not quite. It feels simililar to when a dentist's drill brushes against a nerve ending, you know."

"I've never had a cavity, but I now what you mean," and then he adds, "You probably wouldn't tell I'm forty-five, would you?"

I'm on the table again. It's as if I'm receiving cardio-resuscitation, but on my back. I hear more cracks. Also, my stomach growls. I realize I haven't had much else since breakfast, except for two boiled eggs for lunch at work. 

"You should be straight now. Give it a few days to heal. You want to hear something funny? I had this patient the other day, gay, he had complaints about his back. So I said, "Alright, let's make you straight", and he turned around and said, "I don't think so, it aint gonna happen."

On my way back home it starts to drizzle, but soon wind pulverizes it into the cold spray. It feels clean; the air smells of fresh pencil shavings. Sea gulls in the canals look like crumpled sheets of white paper scattered about the water that's under the cement of the clouds turned into the undiluated ink.

I step through the doorway, and the half-moon is already in my window again.

Mujadara (moo-jha-dra)
Adapted from Orangette
Yield: 4-6 servings

Officially this is an ancient dish of green lentils, rice and caramelized onions highly regarded throughout the Arab world, unofficially -- one-pot miracle. It's such low maintanence to make, and it pays back tenfold. One, it's not costly to assemble; two, it gets better as it sits (so make it the day before if you can); three, it's nourishing to no end. It may not please the eye, but it will please the mouth. It absolutely will. You just really need to caramelize the life out of those onions; the flavor of the dish hinges on them and them alone. It's a slow process -- the time may vary depending on your stove and the pan's size -- but at least thirty minutes, ideally an hour, should pass until the onions are ready, amber and sweet. 

60 ml (1/4 cup) olive oil
500 g (1 pound) onions, peeled and sliced lengthwise
200 g (1 cup) green lentils (such as de Puy), picked over for debris
100 g (1/2 cup) basmati rice
1 tsp salt, or more to taste
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

In a large skillet or sauté pan warm the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are caramelized through and through (once they start taking on color, scale the heat down to lowest to avoid scorching). This process should take from 30 to 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the lentils in a medium pot, cover with plenty of water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, undisturbed, for twenty minutes. Then drain the lentils and set them aside. 

Once the onions are ready, stir in the rice, along with the cooked lentils, the salt and pepper, and two cups of water. Mix very well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a lazy simmer, cover, and cook. Depending on the size and shape of your pan, this step can take from 20 to 40 minutes. 

After 20 minutes, remove the lid and give the lot a careful stir. If there is still liquid visible, replace the lid, and cook more until it's fully absorbed. If there is no visible liquid, check the rice for doneness. If it's tender, the dish is ready. If it's not, add a splash of water, cover, and cook until the rice is done and the liquid is absorbed. Add more salt and pepper, if needed. Garnish with fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional).